Few issues so fixate and divide our nation of immigrants as much as how we should govern immigration. This has been especially true since the recent presidential campaign, when immigration debates loomed large.
While the Trump administration has enacted various immigration-related policies by executive orders, Republicans have finally introduced an actual piece of legislation to represent their views. The “Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy Act” (RAISE Act henceforth) will undoubtedly be in the news in upcoming days and weeks, so it behooves the careful conservative media consumer to know what’s in the bill and what it means.
First, the RAISE ACT would eliminate “Diversity Lottery Visas,” a program that gives 50,000 visas to countries that send few immigrants to the United States in the name of, well, diversity. Second, it would limit the number of refugees given permanent residency to 50,000 per year. Third, it would eliminate the ability of immigrants to sponsor visas for extended family members and adult children.
Fourth, it would restructure the employment-visa system into a points system akin to those used by Canada or Australia, prioritizing young-ish immigrants with good English, high-paying job offers, and other markers of achievement.
The RAISE Act Would Reduce Immigration
The net effect of the RAISE Act would be, ironically given the name, a sharp decline in legal immigration. The graphs below show legal immigration per year since 1980, as well as the effect forecast by the RAISE Act’s sponsors, in absolute numbers as well as legal immigration as a percentage of population since 1850.
As both graphs make clear, the RAISE Act would be a significant reduction in total legal immigration. It would not have any direct effect on illegal immigration, however, it is almost a certainty that more restricted access to legal immigration for family members of current immigrants would result in higher levels of illegal immigration by those family members. As a result, it is likely that total immigration would fall less than legal immigration does, as the RAISE Act would somewhat increase illegal immigration (although of course more intensive border enforcement could offset that).
It should be noted that legal immigration is already stable even without changes to any laws. In absolute numbers and population share, legal immigration has been approximately flat for about 15 years. Meanwhile, illegal immigration has been stable at comparatively low levels. The graph below shows the number of apprehensions and verdicts of inadmissibility along the southwest border in each year ending in June from 2001 to this past June.
Using border apprehensions as a proxy for illegal immigration, we can get a rough estimate of total immigration into the United States, shown in the graph below. Legal and illegal immigration can be seen to decline fairly sharply from 2000 until 2011, but immigration has been stable since then at around 1.5 million new entrants per year.
The graph also includes a forecast out to 2028 under the RAISE Act incorporating the sponsor’s forecast of legal immigration as well as a reasonable forecast of illegal immigration. Altogether, the RAISE Act would indeed lower immigration, but ultimately this immigration restriction bill would do less to lower immigration than George W. Bush did, and he is not usually remembered as slashing immigration (although illegal immigration did fall dramatically while he was president).
This Bill Would Fundamentally Change Immigration Policy
Right now, immigrants can legally come to the United States through several channels. The most common method is family-based migration. Current U.S. permanent residents can sponsor visas for their children, spouses, parents, grandparents, and other extended family members.
Another common method is employment-based migration, wherein employers can sponsor an application for a green card for certain workers. About 140,000 such employment-based green cards are available each year. These are separate from temporary work visas like H1-B, which the RAISE Act does not affect. A comparatively small number of immigrants obtain permanent residency after arriving as a refugee (about 50,000 per year) or through the Diversity Lottery (50,000 per year).
Instead of the current complex system of employment priorities, the RAISE Act creates a “points system.” Point systems work in a very straightforward and transparent way: each person applying for immigration authorization is awarded points based on various characteristics on a 0 to 100 bases. If you get fewer than 30 points, you are ineligible for immigration.
Practically speaking, nobody except Olympic athletes, wealthy investors, or Nobel Prize winners gets a score over 45 points. For most immigrants, points come from age (26-31 is the sweet spot, earning 10 points, while over-50s get zero points, with various gradations in between), education (a bachelor’s degree earns you 5 or 6, an STEM masters 7 or 8, a STEM PhD 10 or 13), English-language skills (the top 10 percent of test-takers using a standardized test get 12 points), and salary offered (5-13 points depending on how far the wage is above median wages).
Many countries use points systems because these are easy to understand for voters, bureaucrats, and immigrants. Voters feel like they understand how they’re being governed, bureaucrats don’t have to make as many subjective choices, and immigrants have clear goals and benchmarks. The United Kingdom adopted such a system in 2008. Australia’s system is widely seen as a model for such systems. You can easily look up Canada’s scoring system online.
By totally eliminating the Diversity Lottery, restricting refugee admissions, and dramatically reducing family visas, the RAISE Act would place a much heavier emphasis on skills-based migration than our current system does. In that sense, it would make immigration into the United States more similar to our English-speaking, nation-of-immigrants peer countries like Australia and Canada, while making it harder for whole extended family groups of immigrants to move to the United States all at once.
While separating families can create ill-will among some immigrants, most experts on both sides of the aisle agree that language learning, income convergence, and preparation for naturalization all occur more rapidly when immigrants are embedded in mostly native social circles and are better educated. Thus, broadly speaking, points-based systems help to integrate immigrants faster and more seamlessly than systems based on family ties and kinship like current U.S. immigration law.
The Good and The Bad
A focus on skills is long overdue. Even as low-skilled workers in the United States may face competition from cheaper immigrant labor, high-skilled employers continue to complain that they can’t find enough workers. Shifting away from kinship-based visas that encourage immigrants to bring over lower-skilled relatives towards a system that zeroes in on skilled workers would simultaneously reduce the pressure on working-class wages while making it easier for advanced companies to hire the best and brightest from around the world.
At least, that’s what should happen. But the RAISE Act designers made a crucial drafting error. They slashed family visas, implemented a points-based system… then left the number of employment visas unchanged at 140,000. This is nonsensical. Sure, the RAISE Act relieves some pressure on low-skilled workers, which is good, but it does absolutely nothing to make the United States more globally competitive.
Indeed, it actually makes it harder for companies to poach talent from abroad by creating additional barriers, such as English fluency or certain age brackets, that were not previously necessary. Say you’re an advanced polymer manufacturing company in Ohio and you want to hire an engineer. Your new hire has a PhD in polymers from a U.S. university (13 points) and you’re offering him 400 percent of median wages (13 points). But he’s 53 (zero points) and his English is only about average for foreigners (zero points). At 26 points, this candidate is totally ineligible for a visa despite obviously being good for the country.
Now, that’s no big deal if the RAISE Act had actually raised the cap on skilled migration. Sure, you’d lose some good candidates to the points system, but the greater amount of skilled workers overall would more than offset in terms of boosting the economy. But alas, the RAISE Act did not raise the amount of allowed skilled migration. Given that the RAISE Act actually makes it harder to recruit skilled workers, even as it cuts off other labor supply, it is almost impossible to imagine it actually strengthening the economy, as its sponsors desire.
Luckily, this simple mistake can be fixed. A higher cap designed to at least offset the Diversity Lottery, possibly also some of the extended family visas, would go a long way to showing the bill’s sponsors are serious about shifting the United States towards a skills-based immigration system. Setting the skills-based visa cap at 250,000 or 300,000 would go a long way towards giving cutting-edge companies the space they need to compete in a global environment without compromising on the skills quality of immigrants.
Making It Even Better
The truth is, under a well-designed points system, no cap on immigration is necessary. While this may seem like open-borders extremism, it’s actually just simple, logical, nationally self-interested policymaking. In an ideal points system we would come up with all the factors that predict how likely an immigrant is to fit in well in the United States.
So we might give extra points for employability, education, and language, as the RAISE Act proposes. We may also give extra points for certain age brackets, exceptional achievements, or business concerns, as RAISE does. But we might also assign points for other factors: have you lived in the United States previously? If your English proficiency is excellent, do you speak any of the languages the State Department identifies as critical to American strategic interests?
We could also expand the list of exceptional accomplishments to include more than Nobel prizes and Olympic medals: notable publications, trademarks, or patents, for example, could be considered. We could also assign points for a person who has been on an Olympic team but has not yet earned medals, as a way to poach talent. We could even roll refugee-type considerations into the points system: are you a member of a persecuted ethnic or religious minority in your home country? Here’s 5 extra points, etc. People seeing the United States as a friendly welcome and hand out of persecution are likely to integrate faster, especially if they also speak English, are educated, and are in prime working years (most refugee-terrorists arrive as teenagers).
Once we have a satisfactory set of criteria, we don’t need a cap. Say that, under a well-designed points system, 1 million immigrants arrive. That poses no serious problem for integration or government benefits because, by definition, all 1 million met our standards for self-sufficiency and good integration! By categorically excluding individuals who pose a risk of integration and making the points system the overwhelmingly dominant immigration conduit, we eliminate the need for fixed caps. Anyone who can meet the standard of entry poses little or no integration risk.
The only problem created by this scenario is ethnic concentration. That is, a large group of qualified people could migrate together and form concentrated ethnic diasporas within the United States and counteract their pro-integration demographics. But even this problem can be easily counteracted: just assign negative points based on the country of origin’s share of the U.S. population, or that country’s share of recent immigration.
That is, the bigger the ethnic diaspora in the United States, the more negative points assigned. This would have the result of penalizing immigrants from big countries, while making it easier to skim off the most talented immigrants from smaller countries. Academic research suggests that this strategy yields immigrants who are far more productive than recruiting large numbers from big countries. And if we worry about geographic concentration, then we could even penalize immigrant scores based on the immigrant-origin composition of the state where their employment will be based: so Mexicans moving to Maine are penalized less than Mexicans moving to California.
This strategy would serve to diversify immigrant inflows, making it harder for immigrant groups to form the insular communities of co-ethnics that can so doggedly thwart integration. While the RAISE Act rightly noted that the Diversity Lottery visas are arbitrary, unfair, and do little to promote U.S. competitiveness, the bill’s sponsors missed the crucial point that diversifying immigrant inflows is an important way to speed up immigrant integration.
It’s a Hopeful Start
The RAISE Act is an invaluable step in pushing the United States away from its outdated, uncompetitive system of nepotistic, kinship-based immigration, towards a modernized, skills-based points system. If for no other reason than that, it deserves to be lauded.
But if the RAISE Act were made law as it stands now, the consequences could be dire as advanced companies faced new barriers in hiring workers, making it easier for our competitors in China, India, and Europe to beat us in trade. Total immigration would be reduced, but illegal immigration would probably rise. Overall, the American economy would suffer, even its blue-collar workers.
Thankfully, these negative impacts can be fixed without trashing the bill. One extremely simple fix would be to raise the cap on employment-based visas from the current paltry levels: indeed, without such an increase, it’s impossible to call this bill a focus on skills-based migration, and instead we just have to admit most of the bill is about making life harder for immigrant families. But with a higher employment cap, the RAISE Act could be a serious immigration reform plan.
If the bill’s sponsors want to be even bolder, they could replace the cap altogether with a more expansive set of criteria awarding (or removing) points based on a variety of factors related to the economic and social assimilation of immigrants. This more sweeping reform proposal would have the two-fold benefit of both totally defanging leftist critiques of sound immigration restrictions, as you can’t get more open to immigrants than “no upper limit,” while also providing safeguards against excessively high levels of immigration by specific groups.